By GARY FONG
Located smack dab in the middle of NYC’s Upper East Side is one of my favorite NYC art venues, the always interesting but often-overlooked Asia Society Museum (ASM). I say overlooked because it’s not officially grouped in with the nearby venues along Museum Mile (that includes the Met and the Guggenheim) nor is it officially part of the midtown spaces, which are anchored by the Museum of Modern Art. In fact, ASM tends to fly mostly under the tourist radar, which is a good thing because that means it’s rarely crowded and left largely for the locals to enjoy.
If you’re not familiar with the ASM – and chances are you’re not – it’s most famous for being the home of the Rockefeller collection of Asian Art, which is probably reason enough to visit. For me, though, it’s not so much the Rock’s collection that draws me to the ASM again and again (’cause, to be honest, another storied scroll or Ming vase holds little interest) but rather its exhibitions.
ASM often features exhibitions by some of the best and brightest artists from Asia’s contemporary art world, which I don’t often find at NYC’s larger art museums. A couple of recent examples (and definite faves) include Yohshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Food, the first major US exhibition of Japan’s manga/anime-influenced pop artist, Yohshitomo Nara, who is known for combining the Japanese concept of “kawaii” (cuteness) with more serious themes like isolation and rebellion, and Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983–1993, which was a fascinating portrait of NYC (and specifically, the East Village in the early 1980’s) through the eye’s of a young Ai Weiwei, long before he became know for his conflicts with the Chinese government.
It’s also worth noting that ASM can also do the historical stuff pretty well, too. Their recent exhibition, A Prince’s Manuscript Unbound: Muhammad Juki’s Shahnamah, was amazing, though I have to admit that I’m a pushover when it comes to illuminated manuscripts. Suffice it to say, it was one of the loveliest I had seen since the Padshahnama Mughal manuscript from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle toured the US back in the 90’s.
One last thing to know if you’re going to check out ASM – it can feel a bit stuffy. It’s probably due to its Upper East Side locale, but don’t let that put you off – the art at ASM always makes up for any UES-associated shortcomings.
Where is it? ASM is housed in the headquarters for the Asia Society at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street). To get there from downtown, take the #6 train (green line) to 68th Street-Hunter’s College station.
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(Photos: G. Fong, Artwork © Asia Society Museum)